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The year in review

Published:  18 January, 2007

When we look back at the history of Australian wine, how will we remember 2005? As the year of the screwcap? The ros renaissance? Shiraz/Viognier blends? The year when Australia started to claw back its reputation as a producer of fine, terroir-driven wines? The year it consolidated its global image as a provider of popular premium' gimmick brands? Or all of the above?

Screwcaps have really broken through to the mainstream in 2005. A couple of years ago, I thought I was being optimistic predicting that more than 50% of all Australian bottles would be topped with a screw by 2007. Turns out I was being wildly conservative: at last month's Alternative Varieties Wine Show, where I was chief judge, 64% of the 400 wines entered - 83% of the whites - were bottled under a closure other than cork, with the vast majority of these under metal. What's more, leading retail chain Dan Murphy's reports that 70% of the high-volume commercial Australian stacked on its shop floors are now sealed with screwcap. The revolution has arrived.

A similar seismic shift has occurred (as it has around the world) in sales of pink wine in Australia: according to a recent AC Nielsen study, domestic sales of ros increased by more than 80% during 2005. Every one of the country's 2,000-plus wineries, it seems, now has a pink wine in its portfolio.

Most of them also have a Shiraz/Viognier. The technique of co-fermenting a tad of the perfumed white Viognier

with red Shiraz has become incredibly popular; it is The Red Wine Style of The Moment. Not all of these Shiraz/Viogniers work well, by any means (it's amazing how, even at proportions of just 5-6%, the Viognier can dominate and make the wine taste oily and apricotty), but the best (Clonakilla, Yering Station, De Bortoli, By Farr, among others) are helping take Australian reds in an exciting new direction.

New directions have been a bit of a theme this year. With its launch of the Open Your Mind' campaign, the revitalised Wine Export Council - now known as Wine Australia - threw itself into the ongoing debate about the image of the country's wine overseas. Is the growing herd of popular premium' critter wines (Yellow Tail, Little Penguin, Four Emus) making it harder and harder for Australia to convince the world that we also do the interesting, fine-wine thing really well? Is there - as people like ex-Petaluma, now-Tapanappa winemaker Brian Croser kept reminding us this year - an urgent need for more individuality, diversity and commitment to wines that express a sense of place?

Two high-profile launches undoubtedly helped boost the ultra-quality image this year: the release of the 2005 Langtons Classification of Australian Wines (our unofficial hierarchy of the best 101 wines, published every few years by the country's leading wine auction house); and the oversubscribed offer

of the 2004 Bin 60A and Block 42 special bin' wines - the

first time Penfolds has sold en primeur.

But at the same time, the way-too-abundant 2005 vintage (1.9 million tonnes, resulting in at least 300 million litres of surplus wine) and the top-heavy consolidation of both the industry (Fosters swallowing Southcorp) and the domestic trade (the unstoppable march of the supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths) has led to both an increased commodification of export wine brands and rampant discounting on shelves at home.

There are signs that the hegemony of the mega-wine-company mentality is inspiring an encouraging backlash. Quite a few refugees from the Fosters/Southcorp and Constellation/Hardys corporate battleships are emerging with their own wines - notably ex-Penfolds chief winemaker John Duval with a ravishing 2003 Shiraz/Grenache blend called Plexus, and ex-Rosemount chief winemaker Phillip Shaw with some wonderfully fine wines from his own high-altitude vineyards in Orange, NSW.

And several stand-alone, quality-focused wine stores have decided to fight back against the retail giants by forming The Alliance of Independent Fine Wine Merchants (www.thewine, an organisation that, during 2005, has done a great job of unearthing and supporting a whole mob of fascinating small-producer wines across the country.

As the year draws to a close, the biggest Australian grog story is the protracted, aggressive bid by brewer Lion Nathan (owner of Petaluma, St Hallett and Tatachilla among others) to take over South Australian beer company Cooper's.

The fact that Cooper's is resisting Lion's financially very tempting offer, as well as vociferous public opposition to the sale (not least among Australia's winemaking community, who cherish the tradition of the cold, post-vintage Cooper's almost as dearly as they revere footy or cricket) are, I think, strong signs that the tide could be turning against massive corporate consolidation in this country.